ST. PAUL – Playing in his 1,000th career game and with his team desperate for a victory, Minnesota Wild forward Matt Cullen -- as he's done time and again over his stellar career -- came through when he needed to.
Cullen scored a goal in the third period and was credited with the shootout winner as the Wild held on for a 5-4 victory over San Jose Tuesday at Xcel Energy Center.
But the Wild didn't make it easy on themselves. Leading twice in the third period, including a 4-2 margin after Cullen was awarded his 11th goal of the season with 6:20 to play, San Jose rallied with two goals in 22 seconds to tie the game, and then pressured the Wild over the final two minutes and change and into overtime.
Minnesota -- which has lost three straight shootouts and 11 of their last 13 overall -- had to be relieved just to get it there.
"At the end of the game, we played a little bit like that team that is struggling," Cullen said. "We didn't have the same confidence and poise with the puck than we did when we were winning. It's a testament to the group we have that we found a way to hang on."
"That's how we do it, we don't do things the easy way," said Wild coach Mike Yeo.
Leading 3-2 and badly needing an insurance goal, Cullen charged the San Jose goal, stopping only when he delivered the puck to the crease and was knocked down near the right post. Casey Wellman crashed in and stabbed at the puck, which deflected off Cullen's shin pad and in.
"Off the shin pad … you take it," Cullen said with a chuckle. "Those are the kind of goals you need when you struggle."
With just 6:20 remaining in regulation, the Wild appeared destined to cruise to just their second victory in 13 games.
But the Sharks had other plans.
Logan Couture's relentlessness at the left post with just over 3 minutes to play pulled San Jose within a goal at 16:54, before the Sharks tied the game just 22 seconds later on a brilliant pass by Joe Thornton from the right half wall to a crashing Patrick Marleau in the slot. He tipped home the pass for his 16th of the season, which was also his 800th career point.
San Jose dominated the final two minutes and change in regulation and the five minute overtime, nearly winning the game on several occasions. Trailing 21-15 on the shot chart after two periods, the Sharks peppered Harding with 23 shots in the third period and overtime.
"To come back when it’s 4-2 with 7 minutes left, it’s very fortunate," Thornton said. "Not many teams are going to give up a two-goal lead with that much time left. We had a chance to get two (points), but we got one and we’ll move on."
The score was notched at one after 20 minutes on goals by Minnesota's Cal Clutterbuck and San Jose’s Dan Boyle. Warren Peters gave the Wild a 2-1 lead after two and Nick Johnson extended that to 3-1 at 7:42 of the third, capitalizing on a 2-on-1 break.
Benn Ferriero made it 3-2 just over two minutes later on a shot from the point that deflected off a Wild skater in the slot and past Harding at 9:47.
Antti Niemi stopped 27 shots and appeared to be fighting the puck for much of the first half of the game. Even as Minnesota was taking low-percentage shots in the first period, Niemi was struggling to corral rebounds and was even the beneficiary of what appeared to be a couple of early whistles.
For much of the contest, Minnesota appeared more like the bunch that led the NHL in points as recently as three weeks ago. The Wild won battles, got the puck deep and even looked better on their miserable power play, which has scored just once in it's last 31 tries over 12 games. The Wild had gone 1-8-3 in that stretch.
Yeo, who must have mentioned the word "fight" a dozen times following his team's morning skate, said he was pleased with how his team did just that Tuesday night.
"You could see that fight right from the start of the game," Yeo said. "And to keep fighting and battle through what we did in the game, that was the team that we were three weeks ago.
"That's where we're at -- we're a team that fights for everything. We need to bring it every day. And that's OK."
Playing without winger Pierre-Marc Bouchard, who was placed on injured reserve earlier Tuesday with concussion-like symptoms, as well as top-line wing Devin Setoguchi, who was scratched late because of a violation of team rules, Minnesota needed contributions from guys not normally found in the scoring charts.
With goals from Johnson and Warren Peters, whose second-period goal was his first of the season, Minnesota got just what they asked for.
"You need that for sure," Yeo said. "You need guys to step up and fill roles."
Harding stopped 34 shots and never had a chance on three of San Jose's deflected goals. He earned his first win since a 5-3 victory Dec. 4 over Anaheim.
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